The Real Issue of Video Game Addiction
By Josh Bycer
In a moment of serendipity I was flipping through the channels yesterday when I came across Katie Couric’s talk show which was doing an hour long special on video game addiction. Like most shows of this nature, there were a few guests to show the consequence and “experts” giving their opinions as to why video games were to blame.
However, as I watched it, there were some logical fallacies at work and the major issue is that the general public doesn’t understand what the problem is in the game industry.
The Generalizing of the Game Market:
Let’s start with looking at how issues of video game addiction have entered the general public. Obviously, video games have been around for much longer but it hasn’t become such an outcry until this last decade. Besides the tragedies that have happened there is one reason at the center of this problem: the general public.
Video games moved away from being a niche experience to a mainstream platform in the last decade, with games like Call of Duty, World of Warcraft and others. As we’ve talked about countless times on Game-Wisdom, game design has become more streamlined over the years and the reason has to do with the general acceptance of video games.
It’s not that fans like you and me have disappeared, but that we’ve been drowned out by the general majority: the college demographic that major publishers are now aiming for. Incidentally, this is why so many older gamers have moved to the Indie market to get more specific game designs and not the mainstream.
When publishers see the sales numbers of games like Halo, Call of Duty and so on, of course they’re going to try and make a game similar to copy their success. It’s the same thing that we’re seeing now with the MOBA market following the rise of League of Legends and DOTA 2.
The change in demographic as we mentioned has also changed game design. Games have been designed around hooking players more with mechanics like achievements, online play and micro transactions to name a few.
Besides those mechanics, games have gotten generally easier and less complex to appeal to more people.
When you combine accessibility with mechanics designed to keep people playing, you have an addictive concoction, which is a far greater danger compared to what newscasters and psychiatrists think is the problem with video games.
Keeping The Game Alive:
Looking at the development of game design over the last decade, it isn’t violent video games that are the main problem, but games designed with addictive qualities. Here, games are built towards keeping people playing with achievements, in-game rewards and capitalizing on that.
A large number of Free-To-Play and social games have been designed with just that in mind: Tempting people with superficial awards and achievements for their continued playtime and payment. Call of Duty which has become the poster child for the violent video game argument, is also a strong case for the addicting qualities of game.
This is where I feel that a lot of experts get it wrong, that Call of Duty isn’t popular because it is a violent game, but because it was built for replayability and continued profit for the developers using specific psychological motivators. The Call of Duty series today is built towards multiplayer which in of itself is highly replayable, as human players will always offer more challenges than an AI.
Call of Duty’s meta-game of unlocking new items, dog-tags, achievements and so on, was explicitly designed to give gamers a sense of progress and achievement to keep them playing. It’s that same circle of behavior of “play, get rewarded and play some more” that we see in MMO titles which was the first major case of people calling video games an addiction.
The debate if video games are addicting because they provide a “virtual escape,” I feel is BS.
They are definitely designed to make people feel good which is where the whole achievement system comes into play, but it’s not about pulling the player into a virtual world.
When gamblers spend hours at the casino pulling slot machines, they’re not taken to a magical gambling world.
Making people feel good is also a major element of the power progression in video games: where characters start out weak and through time (or money spent,) grow more powerful. Being able to see and feel where they are now, compared to where they were, helps motivate players to keep going and get more powerful.
The other side of progression is the concept of investment which is a powerful motivator to keep people playing. When someone has gathered a huge amount of weapons, achievements and so on in Call of Duty or World of Warcraft, it makes it that much harder to stop playing as it means giving all that up. This in turn makes it easier to sell those people DLC and micro transactions as the saying goes: ” in for a penny, in for a pound.”
This is also where the concept of “whales” or the minority of social and free-to-play gamers who spend the most money come from. They reach a point of being so invested in the game that they will buy everything available to keep enjoying it.
Now, here’s a question: Why are people focusing on violence and not addiction? I don’t have a concrete reason why, but if I were to guess, it would be that if video games were cracked down on due to addictive designs. Then the same could be said about much of the casino industry and I bet that there are a lot of people who don’t want that.
Lastly, I want to turn to one major issue I have with the show’s discussion on video games and addiction.
Generalizing the Problem:
On the show, whenever anyone talked about having a problem with a violent or addictive video game, instead of mentioning the game specifically they used the term “video games” for everything.
This was a major misnomer as they were lumping everything together under one definition and the problem has to do with comparing video games to drugs. When you look at drugs like cocaine and meth, their symptoms and ingredients are basically the same. 500 people who do meth will most likely have the same symptoms.
However, lumping video games as a whole together and saying that they are violent or addictive isn’t right. On the show, they talked about the addicting qualities of video games, but only brought up Call of Duty and Halo. But the video game industry is much more than that, with hundreds of indie developers making amazing titles away from the AAA design.
When one expert said that he “reached out to everyone in the game industry” about the issue of game violence, I knew he was lying.
I’m more than willing to bet that he never contacted any indie developers as there are games that were made without using violence.
Once again, we have a few games that are the popular majority being viewed as all encompassing of the industry. This unfortunately means that the general public only knows about those games and nothing else.
One last thing, we can certainly debate that the best designed games are very engaging and hard to put down. The point of this post is about games that are explicitly designed to motivate people to continue playing and spending money and whether or not that is good. I will be returning to the difference with great games at a later time.
There is definitely an issue with video games and addiction, but it’s not about violence anymore. And I hate to see people wanting to help their children or understand the industry more, but looking in the wrong direction.
And if you know of any psychologists or people who study either video games or addiction and would like to appear on the cast to discuss this, please let me know via email from our front page under submissions wanted.(source:game-wisdom)